The definition of “slum” varies from country to country. In India, The Slum Areas Improvement and Clearance Act of 1956 defines ‘slum areas’ as places where buildings: are in any respect unfit for human habitation; and are by reason of dilapidation, overcrowding, faulty arrangement and design of such buildings, narrowness or faulty arrangement of streets, lack of ventilation, light, sanitation facilities or any combination of these factors which are detrimental to safety, health and morals.
The Census of India defines a slum as “a compact area of at least 300 in population or about 60-70 households of poorly built, congested tenements in an unhygienic environment usually with inadequate infrastructure and lacking proper sanitary and drinking water facilities”. The United Nations agency UN-HABITAT, defines slum as “a run-down area of a city characterized by substandard housing and squalor and lacking in tenure security”.
Slums are an urban phenomenon and they represent an imbalance between migration into cities and economic growth within the city itself. They grow due to poor utilization of the reproductive child health services provided by the government, lack of awareness regarding birth spacing, very low use of contraceptives, illiteracy, and marriage at a young age. Another reason for growth of slums is migration from rural areas to more developed areas by people looking to earn more through higher-paying manual labor compared to the low-returns life of agriculture.
People living in slums face problems of housing, access to drinking water and sewage facilities. Residents live in overcrowded situations, a majority of them with dirt floors and poor ventilation which can lead to rapid spread of respiratory and skin disease. Also, the lack of safe drinking water facilitates the spread of water borne diseases. The presence of stored water further promotes the breeding of mosquitoes and diseases such as malaria. It is estimated that over one third of slum households have no access to bathroom and toilet facilities, promoting open defecation, which in turn leads to spread of faecal-oral disease and parasitic infestation.
According to the 2001 census, literacy in slums is only 65 per cent, though slums in Chennai are at 80 per cent, above the national average. Though education is provided free to slum children, the dropout rates remain high, and many students do not continue studying beyond their 8th standard. Even those children who become literate, lack suitable educational levels to pursue higher studies-the only way to break out of a vicious cycle of poverty.
While slums represent a huge economic failure, the problems that slums suffer from are beyond economic ones. For example, alcoholism is a disease endemic to slums and it leads to moral and economic degradation. Besides limiting the amount of people’s income that can be spent for their family, alcoholism also leads to social diseases of domestic abuse as well as serious health problems. Thus, the very existence of slums raises questions of civic planning and governance in urban India.
When one considers the status and living standards of slums of India, sometimes it becomes difficult to consider them as human settlements. They are looked upon as cattle or any other lower form of life. Slum population in India, according to 2001 census, stood as high as 40,297,341 i.e. about 4 per cent of the total Indian population. About 22 per cent of the slums dwell in the cities.
Amongst the states, Maharashtra leads with a slum population of 10,644,605 persons, followed by Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. While Goa is at the bottom in the list, the city of Mumbai has about 49 per cent of its population living in slums. Slums cover only six per cent of Mumbai’s land and its growth rate is greater than the general urban growth rate.
Even globally, the number of slum dwellers is rising due to increasing population. Around one billion people worldwide live in slums and the figure is likely to double by 2030. A common characteristic feature of slums across the world is the low socioeconomic status of its residents, most of whom employ them in the informal economy. This can include street vending, drug dealing, domestic work, and prostitution. In some slums people even recycle trash of different kinds from household garbage to electronics for a living. They either sell the odd usable goods or strip broken goods for parts or raw materials.
Often slums are informal settlements and hence they face the brunt of natural and man-made disasters, such as fires, landslides, as well as earthquakes and tropical storms. In many slums, especially in poor countries, people live in very narrow alleys that do not allow vehicles like ambulances and fire trucks to pass. The lack of services such as routine garbage collection allows rubbish to accumulate in huge quantities. The lack of infrastructure is caused by the informal nature of settlement and no planning for the poor by government officials.
It seems that the global community is falling short of the Millennium Development Goals which targeted significant improvements for slum dwellers. In India too, the number of people living in slums has more than doubled in the past two decades and now exceeds the entire population of Britain.
Many governments, especially in the Third World, have attempted to solve the problems of slums by clearing away old decrepit housing and replacing it with modern housing with much better sanitation. However, when a slum is cleared, often the former residents are not welcome in the renewed housing. Moreover, new projects are often on the semi-rural peripheries of cities far from opportunities for generating livelihoods as well as schools, clinics etc. Hence, at times inner city slum dwellers militantly oppose relocation to formal housing on the outskirts of cities.
In some countries, the situation has been addressed by rescuing rural property rights to support traditional sustainable agriculture. However this solution has met with open hostility from capitalists and corporations. It also tends to be relatively unpopular with the slum communities themselves, as it involves moving out of the city back into the countryside, a reverse of the rural-urban migration that originally brought many of them into the city.
It can be argued that slum clearances tend to ignore the social problems that cause slums and simply redistribute poverty to less valuable real estate. Moving of communities out of slum areas to newer housing may result in loss of social cohesion. If the original community is moved back into newer housing after it has been built in the same location, residents of the new housing may face the same problems of poverty and powerlessness. So, there is a growing movement to demand a global ban of ‘slum clearance programmes’ and other forms of mass evictions.